It's hard to say if it's the "root for the underdog" syndrome or the "failed golfer seeking consolation in others' misery" disease, but I'm always drawn to the bottom half of the listed scores on pgatour.com each Friday which gives up "the following players failed to make the cut" information. There they are. The list of players who worked their asses off and also paid good money to enter a tournament on the professional men's golfing circuit one week and who will walk away with nothing but a bad taste in their mouths. The list remains posted there for the duration of the tournament. For the golfers on it, it must be like seeing your name on a sex offenders list. You will usually find a few well-known names on this list, but it will primarily be made up of folks no one would have ever heard of: Rookies and rabbits and wanabees and over-the-hill golfers chasing a dream that fades a little bit each time they find themselves on the wrong side of this insidious cut line.
If you want to be one of the chosen few who get paid good money to play games for a living, there's going to have be a way to keep score. In the world of professional golf in this wonderful land of capitalism where anyone with enough talent and moxie can reach any level they desire (enough), score is kept in two ways. One, of course, are the numbers on the score card which add up to a total for each round. The other and more important marker is money. If you want a regular job on the PGA Tour starting next year, you have to wind up in the top 125 money winners this year. That will guarantee your tour card; invitations into most of the tournaments played for the next year.
Let's imagine that you're a rookie out on tour and you've managed to work your way into a handful of tournaments. Perhaps you did this by doing fairly well on the junior tour (known as the Nationwide, these days). In order to win enough money to earn your tour card, your first task is going to have to be "making the cut." You may have heard this phrase associated with other aspects of life, but I can assure you that when a golfer hears the term "the cut," it only means one thing. The "cut line" (sometimes spelled as one word, cutline, but almost always just referred to as "the cut") is the score that represents the dividing point between golfers who will play the weekend and those who will be cut from the field after play on Thursday and Friday. Tournaments are normally made up of four rounds, and if you only play the first two and miss the cut, guess how much money you earned? Yep. Nada.
Tournaments nowadays usually start out with a field of approximately 150 players. The cut is a fluid number that will change depending on how the field is playing. Sort of like wagers at the horse track. The cut line is never known when the tournament begins, but begins to take solid form somewhere around late midmorning on Friday. Each tournament has its own way of deciding the cut, but the general idea is to trim the field by around half. So, if there are 150 players on Thursday, the rules might say "we'll cut to the top 70 players, along with any golfers within 10 shots of the lead." Thus, if you're paying attention, you might see the cut line on Friday afternoon change from +2 (to par) to +3 and back to +2 and settle on +1, if the last participants in the field finish strongly. If it is +1, then all players who have that score or better by the end of Friday's play get to play Saturday and Sunday with the almost sure chance of winning at least some money. Those who are one or more strokes worse can go home and watch on TV. They can watch on TV as their wives hover over their left shoulders asking the same question week after week, "When are you going to admit you can't do this? When are you going to get a real job, you loser?"
One of the big stories in men's golf recently has been the attempt by a handful of women to make the cut in a PGA Tour event. The lovely Annika Sorenstam teed it up at the 2003 Colonial and failed fairly miserably. Suzy Whaley played the Greater Hartford Open later that year. She didn't do any better. Which is understandable, really. After all, the women usually hit from different tees and are not used to playing courses which are well over 7,000 yards long. Jumping in there with the guys and hitting from the back tees is quite a challenge.
One young lady, Michelle Wie, came closest to making the cut in a men's tournament recently. She's fifteen years old. Yeah, fifteen. She played in the John Deere Classic in July of this year and looked as if she was going to finish right on the number for the cut on Friday. But then she made double bogey on the 15th and bogied the 16th. I watched that happen, and it was a real disappointment to me. I'm not sure how the guys in the PGA playing in that tournament felt about it. I know that she beat the hell out of several of them, including David Duval who was ranked the Number One player in the world just a few short years ago. She beat him by six strokes. Did I mention she was a fifteen year old girl? Ouch.
Wie had played two other PGA Tour events, missing the cut at the 2004 Sony Open by a stroke. She fell short by seven strokes in that same tournament this year.
The last woman to make the cut in a men's tournament was Babe Didrikson Zaharias at the 1945 Tucson Open. It was 58 years later before another woman even tried.
Another famous person who is not on the PGA Tour has had his name often mentioned in conjunction with "making the cut." Jack Lemmon played every year in the Pro-Am at the Pebble Beach Tournament. This used to be informally called the Bing Crosby Tournament, or the Clambake since that's what they did for dinner on the beach. Even though the pros are playing for real money in a real tournament, this one features a side event where one amateur is teamed with one professional and their scores are combined, with the amateur using his handicap for scoring purposes. For thirty years, Jack Lemmon did his damndest to make the cut in this event. Sometimes he came close, but not usually. It did become a running gag and somehow capsulized his life. The funniest celebrity non-professional golfer these days, Bill Murray, often refers to this perfect tragedy. The funniest professional golfer, Peter Jacobsen, was Lemmon's playing partner for the last sixteen attempts. So why couldn't Jack Lemmon ever make the cut at this tournament? I think it was summed up quite well by Byron Nelson when he analyzed Lemmon's swing. He said, "My God, he looks like he's beating a chicken."
But all this foreshadowing about the concept of The Cut has only been for one purpose. I really wanted to talk about the most amazing streak in the history of golf and maybe in the history of all sports. I am not speaking of Jack Nicklaus' 18 major championships. I am fairly certain that record is going to fall within my lifetime. And I'm not speaking of Sam Snead's 82 PGA Tour victories. That one may not fall during my lifetime, but it will fall one day. No, I'm speaking of a modern record that will likely never fall, even though most folks don't even know it exists. I am speaking of a streak that ended on a Friday the 13th of this year down in Texas at the Byron Nelson Classic. In what might be called the apex of irony, the record streak that fell on that Friday the 13th in May of 2005 had previously belonged to Lord Byron Nelson, the same man who had so deftly analyzed Jack Lemmon's swing. His record was 113. The streak that beat him ended at 142.
Now, bear with me, because I know that folks who don't play golf won't understand how phenomenal this is. How could you compare it? Would it be like bowling six 300 games in a row? Would it be like pitching no-hitters for one complete season? Would it be like running for 100 yards in every game for ten NFL seasons in a row? I don't know. But I do know that it will never be done again. Tiger Woods ended a streak of 142 made cuts on the PGA Tour this year. That means that he had, up until that point, not failed to play on the weekend in any tournament he entered for seven years.
On that fateful Friday in May at Cottonwood Valley, Tiger bogeyed the 18th hole from the left greenside bunker to shoot a 2-over 72 which put him at 1-over for the tournament. His par putt hung there on the lip of the cup, failing to fall in with perhaps only half an inch of turf in the way. The cut was even par. It was the first cut Tiger had missed in seven years. It was the first time since 1998, and only the third time in his career, that Woods has failed to qualify for play on the weekend.
I can hear you asking yourself, "Weren't there times during those seven years that he came real close to missing the cut?" Yes, there were about a dozen good chances for him to miss the cut during the streak. In each case, he would pull off some superhero miracles during the last 9 holes on Friday to ensure his participation on the weekend. Probably the most exciting example was in the 2001 PGA Championship. This was at a crucial time; about halfway into the streak. He was two below the projected cut when he holed a 40-foot birdie putt from off the 15th green, then a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 16. He wound up making the cut by one stroke.
Here are the longest consecutive-cut streaks in PGA Tour history (Source: PGA Tour Media Guide):
Tiger Woods, 142 (Buick Open, Feb. 1998, through Wachovia Championship, May 2005)
Byron Nelson, 113 (Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, Jan. 1941, through Colonial National Invitation, May 1948)
Jack Nicklaus, 105 (Sahara Open, Oct. 1970, through World Series of Golf, Sept. 1976)
Hale Irwin, 86 (Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, Jan. 1975, through conclusion of 1978 season)
Dow Finsterwald, 72 (Carling Golf Classic, Sept. 1955, through Houston Invitational, Feb. 1958)
To really appreciate the magnitude of Woods' record breaking cut streak, just consider that, now, the longest current streak on the PGA Tour is Ernie Els' streak of 20 straight cuts made.
I tried not to like Tiger Woods for the first few years. I just didn't care for the way his dad over-promoted him, and he seemed to have just a little bit too much cocky in him. I have changed my mind. He's done his best to tone his attitude down while still being the most amazing sports figure I've ever seen. He's phenomenal, and I am fairly sure that when legacies are carved out in the far distant future, Tiger Woods will be thought of right alongside that other famous streak-master, Joe DiMaggio. That's shitting in high cotton, as we used to say on the farm.